Deferred maintenance

Andrew Sheeler
March 1, 2011

Deferred maintenance: just the words make my eyes glaze. How can a term be so dry yet so critically important for the university and the people who make it their home?

According to the University of Alaska, there are more than $750 million worth of unfunded, necessary and overdue repair projects throughout the university system. That is deferred maintenance. In practical terms, it is the leaks in the Wood Center roof as snow seeps through cracks in the concrete and rains down on the heads of students, staff and faculty trying to eat lunch. Deferred maintenance includes repair or replacement of boilers, pipes, sprinkler systems, labs and ceiling and floor tiles. In reality, it’s the reason our water tastes so bad, why many of our ceilings and floor tiles are full of asbestos and why the university was forced to spend more than $100,000 to provide campus electricity when the power plant broke down.

It’s clear the university has an infrastructure that could be described as “decaying.” There’s work that really needs to be done. Less clear is why money for these overdue projects has yet to appear.

Every year, the Board of Regents goes to the State Legislature requesting money to pay for these long-needed projects. Since asking for just shy of a billion dollars is considered something of a faux pas in Juneau, the regents ask for a substantially smaller amount. For the fiscal year 2012, which begins this July, the regents requested $37.5 million. That’s not nearly enough. At that rate, it would take 20 years to get all the existing deferred maintenance taken care of. By that time, we’ll have accumulated 20 years worth of additional deferred maintenance. This is unsustainable. A university with leaky roofs, water that tastes like it has been sitting in a rusty pot and asbestos in the floor and ceiling is a university that will repel the potential students and faculty we should be striving to attract.

So what is to be done? It clearly isn’t so simple as asking for more money. The State Legislature, or at least certain powerful elements of it, has made it clear they are not interested in expanding government largesse toward the university. If anything, they seem focused on weaning the university off the government teat. The university is told to find more private donors, more federal grants, make do with less. This is unacceptable.

When the Alaska Constitution was signed, the University of Alaska was enshrined within it. We are one of the few state universities in the country to be protected by a constitutional mandate. The framers considered the university to be critical as the home of Alaska’s only true renewable resource: our young women and men. It is the responsibility, the imperative, of our Legislature to protect that resource and that means cultivating and maintaining the best possible state university. It means lawmakers stop hemming and hawing and open up that $20 billion “rainy day” bank account we have and start spending it on the thing that will not only keep young people here but attract new ones as well: the university.

It’s time we dropped this stupid regional feud and remembered we’re all in the same (leaky) boat. It’s time for student governments on all three campuses to speak up. A visit to Juneau is a great start, now let’s see some protests. Let’s see some action. I call on the Northern Light student paper at UAA and the Whalesong at UAS to join the Sun Star in holding our state government accountable. Let’s spend less time asking “What’s a SeaWolf?” and more time asking why people in power seem to think it is acceptable for students to have to drink putrid water or for people to work in leaky classrooms and offices. This rare issue bridges faculty, student and staff. It affects every single one of us. We must speak with one voice, or else how can we expect anybody to understand us?

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